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Check out “Expedition Great White” on the National Geographic Channel!

“How do you study one of the world’s fiercest predators in the wild?” the cover of the “Expedition Great White” DVD screener that National Geographic sent me asked. I was delighted to discover that my sarcastic answer of “very carefully” is exactly what the back cover of the DVD case read! I knew I was going to like this show from that point on, and I was right.

Expedition Great White, which premieres this coming Sunday on the National Geographic channel, is a different kind of shark documentary. Instead of focusing on shark attacks, it follows the adventures of scientist Michael Domeier and his team of expert anglers (which for some reason includes actor Paul Walker) as they attempt to study great white sharks in the wild.

Unlike “Shark Week”, the drama on Expedition Great White doesn’t come from re-enactments of sharks attacking people. The drama comes from trying to get important data that researchers hope to use to protect this endangered species, and from the real-life struggles facing scientists who work in the field with rare animals. For a while, they only find male sharks while they are hoping for females. Gear malfunctions. A shark gets stuck and they struggle to free it. The Mexican police board their vessel and turned back only after being bribed with cigarettes and fresh fruit. Everyone celebrates when a blood sample is drawn from a great white for the first time. No human is injured in the course of the show, and the people I watched it with still couldn’t look away. Science is all about telling a story, and this show demonstrates that real science stories can be as compelling as artificial hype.

Throughout the three episodes that I watched, the team showed respect bordering on reverence for the sharks, and they continually tried their hardest to avoid harming them.

Dr. Domeier managed to get a few excellent shark conservation quotes in there, including:

“The public really needs to pay attention and care about sharks. What we do know about sharks is that they’re being overfished all over the world. If we continue to fish sharks as heavily as we do know, sharks are going to disappear from the planet”

And “It’s really important that the public knows that sharks occupy an important niche… if we lose sharks, our ecosystem is going to change for the worse”

The science (including why they needed this kind of data and how they planned on getting it) was well presented throughout. One of the main purposes of this expedition is to to affix satellite tags to all captured sharks. Dr. Domeier explains well why tracking data is important:

“we know great white sharks aggregate in a few areas around the world…we’re not exactly sure why they’re there, we’re not exactly sure where they go or what they’re doing when they’re not there… we need to know where they’re going so that we can protect them… hopefully one day we can put together a comprehensive management plan so that we can protect great whites wherever they go”

Dr. Domeier also attempts to draw blood from adult females to run hormone assays. He suspects that Guadelupe Island is a site where great whites go to mate, which would have important management consequences if true. No mating site for great whites has even been identified, and this is the first time that blood has been drawn from a great white.

The methods used to draw blood were the only part of this series that I wasn’t thrilled with. After catching the sharks, they are lifted out of the water using a modified forklift so that people can easily immobilize them, attach tags, and draw blood. There are some problems associated with this technique, which has already been the subject of a great deal of controversy.

Image from ABCnews.com

While I regularly take sharks out of the water for my research, I don’t ever mess with anything larger than 5 or 6 feet. In addition to the human safety factor, animals larger than that may be too heavy for their cartilaginous skeletons to support their weight without water’s buoyancy. The white sharks Dr. Domeier removed from the water were 14-18 feet long. The narrator of this series constantly repeated that “as long as the sharks are back in the water within 20 minutes they’ll be fine”. Seeing as this is the first time those methods have been used on sharks this size, I’m going to have to call shenanigans on that 20 minutes figure since we just don’t know that.

That said, all of the sharks shown in the series seemed to swim away fine and the crew took great care of them while they were out of the water. This even led to an amusing and touching moment when one of the expert fisherman hired to catch the sharks described how they “go from trying to conquer this beast and break it’s will to caring for it like a baby”.

I’m not sure how I feel about this technique. I think that the data Dr. Domeier is trying to get can only be obtained by immobilizing a shark, something that isn’t possible while it’s in the water. That data has important management consequences which can benefit the species. However, experimenting with new and possibly harmful methods on an endangered species seems unwise. I’ve contacted Dr. Domeier and asked for a statement on this issue, and I’ll keep everyone posted.

In the meantime,  watch this excellent show and decide for yourself.

UPDATE: Dr. Domeier and his colleague Nicole Lucas have answered my questions.

They also wanted me to point out that their website has an FAQ page about this technique, which can be found here.

WhySharksMatter (WSM): Many people are concerned that pulling such a large animal out of the water can be dangerous for that animal. Should we be concerned?

Michael Domeier/Nicole Lucas (MD/NL): We know that whales can sometimes incur internal injury when they get stranded on the beach, so this issue was a concern.  Fortunately sharks are much smaller than whales, and we started out by testing our methods on relatively small sharks.  Our early success allowed us to slowly start working on larger and larger sharks and likewise found that they go through the tagging process without serious injury.  We could run into problems if we captured a female with a late-term pregnancy, but we target females at sites and times when they are not pregnant.

WSM: Is it possible to get the data you obtained via pulling the shark out of the water using different methods?

MD/NL: Unfortunately no. We have been using pop-up tags for over 10 years and have exhausted what we can learn from these methods. The location data is not precise and they only give 9 months of data. Using acoustic tagging only gives you information where you have a receiver so that can’t give us the answers to the questions we are asking either. We are looking at large scale long term movement patterns so this technology is ideal. This is especially important for tracking the mating and birthing areas for the females which have a 2-3 year migration cycle.

WSM: Is that data important?

MD/NL: The more we know about these sharks that more we can protect them, and there is still much that we don’t know. This is especially important since they cross international boundaries and we are dealing with mating areas, pupping areas and nursery grounds. These are particularly sensitive areas that need to be protected.

WSM: Have any great white sharks been harmed using this method?

MD/NL: We had an incident in the Farallon Islands where a hook was lodged in the back of the mouth and was difficult to extract.  For obvious reasons, you can’t simply reach down into the mouth of an adult white shark and work the hook out.  In this case we had to go in through a gill slit and cut the hook in half with bolt cutters.  We couldn’t reach the rest of the hook, but after cutting it, it should have easily fallen out so that it could be expelled from the mouth.  This particular shark made its normal migration pattern to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to the SOFA, and 8 months later we are still getting regular messages from this shark, so we know for a fact that it is alive and well.  We have now modified our fishing methods for water with very poor visibility so that this can’t happen again.  In short, we fish the bait right at the surface so the shark must turn away as soon as it takes the bait, immediately setting the hook in the mouth or pulling it free.

WSM: Even if the animals swim away safely, sublethal effects are a possibility. Since we know so little about these animal’s behavior, is there any way that we could detect those sublethal effects if they were occurring?

MD/NL: As with any tagging study there will be short term sublethal effects.  The shark will have undergone stress from which it must recover.  Our tags do not allow us to determine the length of the recovery period, but it is likely a matter of hours, a few days at the most.  From our popup tagging studies we know for a fact that all of our SPOT tagged sharks are following there normal, seasonal migratory patterns.  One interesting anecdote, we once caught the same shark twice in a matter of hours; that should provide some indication of the minimal effect we are having on the shark.

WSM: The show continually mentions that as long as the sharks are back in the water within 20 minutes, they’ll be fine. Where did that number come from?

MD/NL: We don’t write the script for the program and I’m not sure how or why that number is do deeply ingrained in the story telling.  I think, perhaps, it is because I had known that white sharks had been restrained for that long previous to our work and the animal survived.  Twenty minutes is an arbitrary number; our goal is to get the shark back in the water ASAP, and that is usually in much less time than 20 minutes.

~WhySharksMatter